Bethsaida is an archaeological site of the 1st century city whose history is documented in both the Old and New Testament periods. The name is translated from Hebrew as the house of a fisherman.
According to the Gospel account, Bethsaida was a fishing village, but the identified ruins seem to be located too far from the shore, although microorganisms at the site support a theory that the area was once a large lagoon that adjoined the Sea of Galilee.
The Gospels of Mark (1:9-11) and John (3:14) begin their stories with the baptism of Jesus. Some Christian scholars assume that John the Baptist had been baptizing people in the desolate places around Bethsaida. The Gospel of John also states that John the Baptist's ministry was located at the places where "there was much water" (John 3:22).
Jesus and his disciples often withdrew to the remote areas of Bethsaida, using the city as a home base to rest from their public ministry.
"And the apostles, when they returned, told him all that they had done. And he took them and went aside privately into a desert place (eremos in Greek) belonging to the city called Bethsaida" (Luke 9:10-11).
In the New Testament, Bethsaida is frequently mentioned together with Capernaum and Chorazim, known collectively as the Gospel Triangle. According to Matthew, Jesus preached and performed most of his healing miracles in these towns,
"Then He came to Bethsaida, and brought a blind man to him, and begged him to touch Him. So He took the blind man by the hand and led him out of the town. And when He had spit on his eyes and put His hands on him, He asked him if he saw anything. And he looked up and said, 'I see men like trees, walking.' Then He put he hands on his eyes again and made him look up. And he was restored and saw everything clearly" (Mark 8:22).
For some of the disciples, it was their hometown.
"Now Phillip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter" (John 1:44).
Although Bethsaida appears to have been a special city to Jesus, He harshly rebuked the inhabitants for their lack of faith at the end of his ministry,
"Woe unto thee, Chorazim! Woe unto thee, Bethsaida! For if the mighty works, which were done in you, had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes" (Matthew 11:21).
Indeed, Bethsaida was completely destroyed by the earthquake in the 4th century AD!
From historical accounts, we know that King Herod the Great's son, Philip, inherited the whole area of the Golan Heights (Gaulanitis) and renamed the city Julias, the wife of Caesar Augustus. Jewish Roman historian Josephus Flavius claims that Herod Philip was buried in his beloved city:
"…He (Philip) died at Julias; and was carried to that monument which he had already erected for himself beforehand, he was buried with great pomp” (Antiquities of the Jews Book 18, chapter 4).
When excavation of Bethsaida began in 1987, there were high expectations of discovering a city where a tetrarch (governor) would have lived and been buried but little was found except a few houses of undressed stones with extremely large courtyards which was possibly a Roman temple, but this is disputed. The location of the present site of Bethsaida (or Et-Tell according to the Arabs) is discussed by Mr. Mendel Nun who is an expert on the Sea of Galilee,
"Excavations of Hellenistic cities in the Land of Israel usually reveal remains such as public buildings, colonnades and so on. However, no such remains were found at the site. As for public buildings, only the foundations of a building of basalt stone were found (dimensions 6 by 20 m). According to the excavators, the building was erected in the year 30 CE and remained in existence until the end of the second century. In their opinion the building was a Roman temple dedicated to Julias, the wife of Caesar Augustus, after whom the city was named. There is no real support for this suggestion, however."
Through history, Bethsaida is a tale of two cities: a Roman city known as Julias and an Iron Age city Zer (or perhaps Zed). From the 1st century AD, Bethsaida was identified by the American scholar E. Robinson (1830 to 1850s), while the Old Testament city of Zer was unearthed by Professor Rami Arav in the 20th century.
The Bible tells that this region was given to the Israelites by God:
"Gilead, and the border of the Geshurites and Maachathites, all Mount Hermon, and all Bashan"...but... "the children of Israel expelled not the Geshurites and the Maachathites, but they dwell among the Israelites until this day” (Joshua 13:11,13).
Remains of a large and fortified city were unearthed during excavations. The city existed in the Iron Age with territory of around 20 acres with the size and characteristics much like other Iron Age cities such as Hazor and Megiddo.
The archaeologists found ruins of a huge palace (50 x 92 feet) and a four chambered gate dating back to the 9th century BC. This gate is the largest of its kind in the Land of Israel. Other ruins at the site include a sanctuary, altar and a vertically placed stone (a "standing” stone) named Masseva.
Edward Robinson, a biblical scholar of Union Theological Seminary in New York (1830-1850), was the first to identify the former site Et Tell with Bethsaida although even in his time not everyone accepted this proposal. The New Testament and other historical sources situate Bethsaida on the lake shore.
Jesus traveled there by boat.
"...He made His disciples get into the boat and go before Him to the other side, to Bethsaida..." (Mark 6:45).
Jewish-Roman historian, Josephus, says Bethsaida was "next to the lake" (Life 398-406) and Bethsaida-Julias was located “near the Jordan River”. Josephus is the only historian that reports Bethsaida was renamed by Herod Philip to Julias:
"And to the village of Bethsaida he (Herod Philip) granted the dignity of a city (polis)... and called it Julias after the name of the daughter of the emperor" (Antiquities 18:28).
Historian Pliny the Elder confirms that Bethsaida-Julias continued to thrive during the early Roman period (1 to 3 AD),
"...the lake, by many writers known as Genesara, sixteen miles in length and six wide; which is skirted by the pleasant towns of Julias..." (Natural History 5;14:18-19).
These details are important clues in search for Bethsaida. The Byzantine Christian authors also provide some information about Bethsaida. Eusebius writes, “It is located in the Galilee, next to the lake of Gennesaret" (Onomasticon 58:11, 305 AD).
In 530 AD, Theodosius describes Bethsaida’s location:
"From Capernaum is six miles to Bethsaida..." (across the lake).
Another historical account is from German pilgrim, Willibald (8th century AD) who wrote he
"visited Bethsaida where there was a church which was previously the house of Peter and Andrew". And "the next morning went to Chorasin, where our Lord healed the demoniacs and sent the devil into a herd of swine. Here was a church of the Christians."
Willibald apparently confused the names of the traditional identification of the place, Cursi (Chorsia in Latin) where the demon possessed were healed with Chorazin where there are no church ruins. There was a Byzantine church and monastery built in Cursi, but at a later time.
Guided by the written accounts of pilgrims and historians, archaeologists unearthed remains of a Byzantine church at El-Araj which has a geometric mosaic floor covering the southern isle and the central nave (altar). The church dates from the 5th to the 8th centuries AD and supports the assertion that El -Araj is Bethsaida, the hometown of Apostles Peter, Andrew and Philip.